The Darker Side of Being Online

This past week I have been researching some stories about the “darker side” of the online world. Amanda Todd, Justine Sacco, and Monica Lewinsky just to name a few.

Jon Ronson’s TED talk, “How One Tweet Can Ruin Your Life” was an interesting account of Justine Sacco, a PR consultant whose life was literally destroyed in a matter of 12 hours because of one tweet. Her message was misinterpreted online, as messages often are, and caused detrimental consequences to her personal and professional life. Ronson focuses on people’s need to shame others online, stating that it gives people “a free pass to tear apart anyone we want.” One quote he stated in the TED talk really stood out to me:

“These days the hunt is on for people’s shameful secrets. You can lead a good, ethical life but some bad phraseology and a tweet can overwhelm it all, become a clue to your secret inner evil.”

Why do people feel they have the right to destroy people online? Things have changed and in the past if you made a mistake, in time it was forgotten. Now, it can stay with you your whole life. I googled Justine Sacco, and just as they said in the video, the first hits to come up have to do with her tweet. The heartbreaking part is when I read interviews and stories where she shared her feelings. Ronson published an article in the New York Times, sharing pieces from his interview with her.

“I cried out my body weight in the first 24 hours,” she told me. “It was incredibly traumatic. You don’t sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night forgetting where you are.”

Why don’t people remember that there is a living, breathing, feeling, human being on the other end of that screen? Someone who has friends, a family, a job, a life. That doesn’t seem to matter to us anymore. It is upsetting, and is a scary reality. Another reminder of the need to be cautious of what we share online, for we never know the power it can have. I never would have thought that social media would have the power to destroy people in this way.

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Photo Credit: ronny-andre via Compfight cc

The Fifth Estate featured an episode on the story of Amanda Todd, “The Sextortion of Amanda Todd”. I had heard about her story in the news, but didn’t know the details. Amanda made one mistake online, and it cost her her life. After being coaxed into flashing someone on her webcam, that individual took a screenshot of her. They sent that photo to online sites and forwarded it to all her facebook friends, including her mother. She thought after a few months this would all disappear, people would forget about it and move on. But that’s not what happened. The individual blackmailing her continued to contact her and threaten her. Amanda suffered from depression, anxiety, and self-harm as a result of this. Medication and counselling were not helping her and sadly she ended up taking her own life. It is a heartbreaking story, one that makes you wonder how it could have all been prevented.

Her story reveals the dangers of teenagers or kids being vulnerable online. “Cappers” are people who save screenshots of young girls online and then proceed to blackmail them. There are thousands of these online predators online, coaxing young girls into exposing themselves on their webcam while they document it and proceed to blackmail them. The police can help in come cases, but some predators are harder to track down. This got me thinking about how we can stop these young girls from putting themselves at risk. Online predators will always be present, but if we can educate young people about the consequences that can come from being vulnerable online for only a moment, perhaps we can prevent something like this from happening to others. It is a difficult task because these girls are looking for positive attention, and they think they are finding it from these strangers online. How do we give them the tools and the power to be confident in themselves so they don’t feel the need to look elsewhere for self-validation?

The last personal account I looked at was the TED talk given by Monica Lewinsky, “The Price of Shame”. Her story is a similar account of the way online attention nearly destroyed her life. However, her story took place in the early days of online media. There was no twitter, no social media. It makes me wonder what would be different if her story took place today. Lewinsky calls for an “intervention on the internet and in out culture.” She challenges us to return to our values of compassion and empathy. If the people involved in these 3 personal stories had shown compassion and empathy, their public shaming and humiliation could have been avoided. How do we start this change in our society? How do we educate people to show compassion and empathy online? How do we teach our students to use the online world for positive influence and making a difference, rather than ruining someone’s life for the purpose of public shaming?

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